Study Confirms Smart Strategies for Achieving Goals

“In 1953 a team of researchers interviewed Yale’s graduating seniors, asking them whether they had written down the specific goals that they wanted to achieve in life.

Twenty years later the researchers tracked down the same cohort and found that the 3% of people who had specific goals all those years before had accumulated more personal wealth than the other 97% of their classmates combined.”

Pretty impressive, right? The same 1953 study is cited by Tony Robbins, Brian Tracy, Zig Ziglar, and other self development gurus. So should you get out pen and paper when setting your goals?

Not so fast.

Blogger and consultant Mike Morrison thought something was a little fishy here, as he had never seen anyone give a bona fide academic citation of the paper. So he went in search of the orginal study.

2 years, 100s of hours, and dozens of emails later he found what he was looking for. No such study at Harvard or Yale had ever been done.

As Harvard librarians say:

“It has been determined that no “goals study” of the Class of 1953 actually occurred. In recent years, we have received a number of requests for information on a reported study based on a survey administered to the Class of 1953 in their senior year and a follow-up study conducted ten years later. This study has been described as how one’s goals at graduation related to success and annual incomes achieved during the period.

The secretary of the Class of 1953, who had served in that capacity for many years, did not know of [the study], nor did any of the fellow class members he questioned. In addition, a number of Yale administrators were consulted and the records of various offices were examined in an effort to document the reported study. There was no relevant record, nor did anyone recall the purported study of the Class of 1953, or any other class.”

It turns out that a 1996 Fast Company article had also debunked the Yale study as little more than an urban legend.

But there is another twist to the story.

Research conducted by psychology professor Gail Matthews at Dominican University shows that people who wrote down their goals, shared this information with a friend, and sent weekly updates to that friend were on average 33% more successful in accomplishing their stated goals than those who only formulated goals.

Matthews’ research backs up the conclusions long attributed to the mythical Yale study.

“With the proliferation of business and personal coaching and the often anecdotal reports of coaching success, it is important that this growing profession be founded on sound scientific research,” Matthews said.

Matthews recruited 267 participants from a wide variety of businesses, organizations, and networking groups throughout the United States and overseas for a study on how goal achievement in the workplace is influenced by writing goals, committing to goal-directed actions, and accountability for those actions. Participants ranged in age from 23 to 72 and represented a wide spectrum of backgrounds.

Participants in Matthews’ study were randomly assigned to one of five groups.

• Group 1 was asked to simply think about the business-related goals they hoped to accomplish within a four-week block and to rate each goal according to difficulty, importance, the extent to which they had the skills and resources to accomplish the goal, their commitment and motivation, and whether they had pursued the goal before (and, if so, their prior success).

• Groups 2-5 were asked to write their goals and then rate them on the same dimensions as given to Group 1.

• Group 3 was also asked to write action commitments for each goal.

• Group 4 had to both write goals and action commitments and also share these commitments with a friend.

• Group 5 went the furthest by doing all of the above plus sending a weekly progress report to a friend.

Broadly categorized, participants’ goals included completing a project, increasing income, increasing productivity, improving organization, enhancing performance/achievement, enhancing life balance, reducing work anxiety, and learning a new skill. Specific goals ranged from writing a chapter of a book to listing and selling a house.

Of the original 267 participants, 149 completed the study. These participants were asked to rate their progress and the degree to which they had accomplished their goals.

At the end of the study, the individuals in Group 1 only accomplished 43 percent of their stated goals. Those in Group 4 accomplished 64 percent of their stated goals, while those in Group 5 were the most successful, with an average 76 percent of their goals accomplished.

“My study provides empirical evidence for the effectiveness of three coaching tools: accountability, commitment, and writing,” Matthews concludes.

Goals Research Summary
Gail Matthews, Professor, Dominican University of California